A Moral Moment

The Bible says, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” The Bush administration has no vision. So the people perish.

Photo: Ed Homich


The following is a transcript of a speech given by former Vice President Al
Gore at the National Sierra Club Convention in San Francisco on September
9, 2005, addressing the challenges and moral imperatives posed by Hurricane
Katrina and global warming.

I know that you are deeply concerned, as I am, about the direction in which
our country has been moving. About the erosion of social capital. About
the lack of respect for a very basic principle, and that is that we, as
Americans, have to put ourselves and our ability to seek out the truth
because we know it will make us free. And then on the basis of truth, as we
share it to the best of our abilities with one another, we act to try to
form a more perfect union and provide for the general welfare and make this
country worthy of the principles upon which it was founded.

My heart is heavy for another reason today, and many have mentioned this,
but I want to tell you personally that my heart is heavy because of the
suffering that the people of the gulf coast have been enduring. The losses
that they’ve suffered in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, New Orleans in
particular, but other cities as well, and rural areas. We are here thinking
of them, thinking as well of the many brave men and women who have exceeded
the limits of exhaustion as they do their duty in responding to this
crisis, to the families of those responders and the families of the
victims.

When I received the invitation that you generously extended for me to come
and speak to you, I did not at first accept, because I was trying to
resolve a scheduling conflict. The Fifty State Insurance Commissioners were
meeting in New Orleans, and asked me to speak about global warming and
hurricanes.

I was supposed to be there today and tomorrow morning. And of course as we
all watch this tragedy unfold, we had a lot of different thoughts and
feelings. But then all those feelings were mixed in with puzzlement at why
there was no immediate response, why there was not an adequate plan in
place. We are now told that this is not a time to point fingers, even as
some of those saying “don’t point fingers” are themselves pointing fingers
at the victims of the tragedy, who did not – many of whom could not –
evacuate the city of New Orleans, because they didn’t have automobiles, and
they did not have adequate public transportation.

We’re told this is not a time to hold our national government accountable
because there are more important matters that confront us. This is not an
either/or choice. They are linked together. As our nation belatedly finds
effective ways to help those who have been so hard hit by Hurricane
Katrina, it is important that we learn the right lessons of what has
happened, lest we are spoon-fed the wrong lessons from what happened. If we
do not absorb the right lessons, we are, in the historian’s phrase, doomed
to repeat the mistakes that have already been made. All of us know that our
nation – all of us, the United States of America – failed the people of New
Orleans and the gulf coast when this hurricane was approaching them, and
when it struck. When the corpses of American citizens are floating in toxic
floodwaters five days after a hurricane strikes, it is time not only to
respond directly to the victims of the catastrophe but to hold the
processes of our nation accountable, and the leaders of our nation
accountable, for the failures that have taken place.

The Bible in which I believe, in my own faith tradition, says, “Where there
is no vision, the people perish.”

Four years ago in August of 2001, President Bush received a dire warning:
“Al Qaeda determined to attack inside the US.” No meetings were called, no
alarms were sounded, no one was brought together to say, “What else do we
know about this imminent threat? What can we do to prepare our nation for
what we have been warned is about to take place?” If there had been
preparations, they would have found a lot of information collected by the
FBI, and CIA and NSA – including the names of most of the terrorists who
flew those planes into the WTC and the Pentagon and the field in
Pennsylvania. The warnings of FBI field offices that there were suspicious
characters getting flight training without expressing any curiosity about
the part of the training that has to do with landing. They would have found
directors of FBI field offices in a state of agitation about the fact that
there was no plan in place and no effective response. Instead, it was
vacation time, not a time for preparation. Or protecting the American
people.

Four years later, there were dire warnings, three days before Hurricane
Katrina hit NOLA, that if it followed the path it was then on, the levees
would break, and the city of New Orleans would drown, and thousands of
people would be at risk. It was once again vacation time. And the
preparations were not made, the plans were not laid, the response then was
not forthcoming.

In the early days of the unfolding catastrophe, the President compared our
ongoing efforts in Iraq to World War Two and victory over Japan. Let me
cite one difference between those two historical events: When imperial
Japan attacked us at Pearl Harbor, Franklin Roosevelt did not invade
Indonesia.

I personally believe that the very fact that there has been no
accountability for the horrendous misjudgments and outright falsehoods that
laid the basis for this horrible tragedy that we have ongoing in Iraq, the
fact that there was no accountability for those mistakes, misjudgments and
dissembling, is one of the principal reasons why there was no fear of being
held accountable for a cavalier, lackluster, mistaken, inadequate response
to the onrushing tragedy that was clearly visible – for those who were
watching television, for those who were reading the news – what happened
was not only knowable, it was known in advance, in great and painstaking
detail. They did tabletop planning exercises, they identified exactly what
the scientific evidence showed would take place. Where there is no vision,
the people perish.

It’s not only that there is no vision; it’s that there has been a misguided
vision. One of the principle philosophical guides for this administration
has been the man who said famously that he wants to render the government
of the United States so weak and helpless that you can drown it in a
bathtub. There were warnings three years ago from the last director in the
Clinton-Gore Administration of FEMA that FEMA was being rendered weak and
helpless, unable to respond in the event of a catastrophe. The budget was
cut, the resources sent elsewhere.

Carl [Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club] said he was embarrassed. The word is a tricky word. What did
you feel after the invasion of Iraq when you saw American soldiers holding
dog leashes attached to helpless prisoners, 99% of whom, by the way, were
innocent of any connection to violence against our troops, much less
terrorism – innocent prisoners who were being tortured in our name – what
did you feel? I don’t know the words. I don’t know the words but I want you
to draw a line connecting the feelings you had when you saw the visual
images providing evidence that our soldiers, acting in our name, with our
authority, were torturing helpless people and that it was a matter of
policy – now, they pointed fingers at the privates and corporals that were
in charge – but I want you to draw a line between the emotions that you
felt when you absorbed that news, and the emotions that you felt over the
last ten days when you saw those corpses in the water, when you saw people
without food, water, medicine – our fellow citizens left helpless. And of
course in both cases the story is complex and many factors are involved,
but I want you draw a line connecting the feelings that you had then and
now. And I want you to draw another line, connecting those responsible for
both of those unbelievable tragedies that embarrassed our nation in the
eyes of the world.

There are scientific warnings now of another onrushing catastrophe. We were
warned of an imminent attack by Al Qaeda; we didn’t respond. We were warned
the levees would break in New Orleans; we didn’t respond. Now, the
scientific community is warning us that the average hurricane will continue
to get stronger because of global warming. A scientist at MIT has
published a study well before this tragedy showing that since the 1970s,
hurricanes in both the Atlantic and the Pacific have increased in duration,
and in intensity, by about 50 %. The newscasters told us after Hurricane
Katrina went over the southern tip of Florida that there was a particular
danger for the Gulf Coast of the hurricanes becoming much stronger because
it was passing over unusually warm waters in the gulf. The waters in the
gulf have been unusually warm. The oceans generally have been getting
warmer. And the pattern is exactly consistent with what scientists have
predicted for twenty years. Two thousand scientists, in a hundred
countries, engaged in the most elaborate, well organized scientific
collaboration in the history of humankind, have produced long-since a
consensus that we will face a string of terrible catastrophes unless we act
to prepare ourselves and deal with the underlying causes of global warming.
[applause] It is important to learn the lessons of what happens when
scientific evidence and clear authoritative warnings are ignored in order
to induce our leaders not to do it again and not to ignore the scientists
again and not to leave us unprotected in the face of those threats that are
facing us right now.

The president says that he is not sure that global warming is a real
threat. He says that he is not ready to do anything meaningful to prepare
us for a threat that he’s not certain is real. He tells us that he believes
the science of global warming is in dispute. This is the same president who
said last week, “Nobody could have predicted that the levees would break.”
It’s important to establish accountability in order to make our democracy
work. And the uncertainty and lack of resolution, the willful
misunderstanding of what the scientific community is saying, the preference
for what a few supporters in the coal and oil industry – far from all, but
a few – want him to do: ignore the science. That is a serious problem. The
President talked about the analogies to World War II – let me give another
analogy to World War II.

Winston Churchill, when the storm was gathering on continental Europe,
provided warnings of what was at stake. And he said this about the
government then in power in England – which wasn’t sure that the threat was
real, he said, “They go on in strange paradox, decided only to be
undecided, resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift, solid for
fluidity, all powerful to be impotent.” He continued, “The era of
procrastination, of half measures, of soothing and baffling expedience of
delays, is coming to a close. In its place we are entering a period of
consequences.”

Ladies and gentlemen, the warnings about global warming have been extremely
clear for a long time. We are facing a global climate crisis. It is
deepening. We are entering a period of consequences. Churchill also said
this, and he directed it at the people of his country who were looking for
any way to avoid having to really confront the threat that he was warning
of and asking them to prepare for. He said that he understood why there was
a natural desire to deny the reality of the situation and to search for
vain hope that it wasn’t really as serious as some claimed it was. He said
they should know the truth. And after the appeasement by Neville
Chamberlain, he sad, “This is only the beginning of the reckoning. This
only the first sip, the first foretaste, of a bitter cup which will be
proffered to us year by year – unless by a supreme recovery of moral health
and martial vigor, we rise again and take our stand for freedom.”

It is time now for us to recover our moral health in America and stand
again to rise for freedom, demand accountability for poor decisions, missed
judgments, lack of planning, lack of preparation, and willful denial of the
obvious truth about serious and imminent threats that are facing the
American people.

Abraham Lincoln said, “The occasion is piled high with difficulty and we
must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, we must think anew and act
anew. We must disenthrall ourselves and then we shall save our country.”

We must disenthrall ourselves with the sound-and-light show that has
diverted the attentions of our great democracy from the important issues
and challenges of our day. We must disenthrall ourselves from the Michael
Jackson trial and the Aruba search and the latest sequential obsession with
celebrity trials or whatever relative triviality dominates the conversation
of democracy instead of making room for us as free American citizens to
talk with one another about our true situation, and then save our country.
We must resist those wrong lessons.

Some are now saying, including in the current administration, that the
pitiful response by government proves that we cannot ever rely on the
government. They have in the past proposed more unilateral power for
themselves as the solution for a catastrophe of their own creation, and we
should not acquiesce in allowing them to investigate themselves and giving
them more power to abuse and misuse, the way they have so recently done.
The fact that an administration can’t manage its own way out of a horse
show doesn’t mean that all government programs should be abolished. FEMA
worked extremely well during the previous administration.

A hundred years ago, Upton Sinclair wrote, “It is difficult to get a man to
understand something when his salary depends upon him not understanding.”
Here’s what I think we here understand about Hurricane Katrina and global
warming. Yes, it is true that no single hurricane can be blamed on global
warming. Hurricanes have come for a long time, and will continue to come in
the future. Yes, it is true that the science does not definitively tell us
that global warming increases the frequency of hurricanes – because yes, it
is true there is a multi-decadal cycle, twenty to forty years that
profoundly affects the number of hurricanes that come in any single
hurricane season. But it is also true that the science is extremely clear
now, that warmer oceans make the average hurricane stronger, not only makes
the winds stronger, but dramatically increases the moisture from the oceans
evaporating into the storm – thus magnifying its destructive power – makes
the duration, as well as the intensity of the hurricane, stronger.

Last year we had a lot of hurricanes. Last year, Japan set an all-time
record for typhoons: ten, the previous record was seven. Last year the
science textbooks had to be re-written. They said, “It’s impossible to have
a hurricane in the south Atlantic.” We had the first one last year, in
Brazil. We had an all-time record last year for tornadoes in the United
States, 1,717 – largely because hurricanes spawned tornadoes. Last year we
had record temperatures in many cities. This year 200 cities in the
Western United States broke all-time records. Reno, 39 days consecutively
above 100 degrees.

The scientists are telling us that what the science tells them is that this
– unless we act quickly and dramatically – that Tucson tied its all-time
record for consecutive days above 100 degrees. this, in Churchill’s phrase,
is only the first sip of a bitter cup which will be proffered to us year by
year until there is a supreme recover of moral health. We have to rise with
this occasion. We have to connect the dots. When the Superfund sites aren’t
cleaned up, we get a toxic gumbo in a flood. When there is not adequate
public transportation for the poor, it is difficult to evacuate a city.
When there is no ability to give medical care to poor people, its difficult
to get hospital to take refugees in the middle of a crisis. When the
wetlands are turned over to the developers then the storm surges from the
ocean threaten the coastal cities more. When there is no effort to restrain
the global warming pollution gasses then global warming gets worse, with
all of the consequences that the scientific community has warned us about.

My friends, the truth is that our circumstances are not only new; they are
completely different than they have ever been in all of human history. The
relationship between humankind and the earth had been utterly transformed
in the last hundred years. We have quadrupled the population of our planet.
The population in many ways is a success story. The demographic transition
has been occurring more quickly than was hoped for, but the reality of our
new relationship with the planet brings with it a moral responsibility to
accept our new circumstances and to deal with the consequences of the
relationship we have with this planet. And it’s not just population. By any
means, the power of the technologies now at our disposal vastly magnifies
the average impact that individuals can have on the natural world. Multiply
that by six and a half billion people, and then stir into that toxic
mixture a mindset and an attitude that says its okay to ignore scientific
evidence – that we don’t have to take responsibility for the future
consequences of present actions – and you get a collision between our
civilization and the earth. The refugees that we have seen — I don’t like
that word when applied to American citizens in our own country, but the
refugees that we have seen could well be the first sip of that bitter cup
because sea-level rise in countries around the world will mobilize millions
of environmental refugees.

The other problems are known to you, but here is
what I want to close with: This is a moral moment. This is not ultimately about any scientific debate
or political dialogue. Ultimately it is about who we are as human beings.
It is about our capacity to transcend our own limitations. To rise to this
new occasion. To see with our hearts, as well as our heads, the
unprecedented response that is now called for. To disenthrall ourselves, to
shed the illusions that have been our accomplices in ignoring the warnings
that were clearly given, and hearing the ones that are clearly given now.

Where there is no vision, the people perish. And Lincoln said at another
moment of supreme challenge that the question facing the people of the
United States of America ultimately was whether or not this government,
conceived in liberty, dedicated to freedom, of the people, by the people,
and for the people – or any government so conceived – would perish from
this earth.

There is another side to this moral challenge. Where there is vision, the
people prosper and flourish, and the natural world recovers, and our
communities recover. The good news is we know what to do. The good news is,
we have everything we need now to respond to the challenge of global
warming. We have all the technologies we need, more are being developed,
and as they become available and become more affordable when produced in
scale, they will make it easier to respond. But we should not wait, we
cannot wait, we must not wait, we have every thing we need – save perhaps
political will. And in our democracy, political will is a renewable
resource.

I know that you are debating as an organization and talking among
yourselves about your own priorities. I would urge you to make global
warming your priority. I would urge you to focus on a unified theme. I
would urge you to work with other groups in ways that have not been done in
the past, even though there have been Herculean efforts on your part and
the part of others. I would urge you to make this a moral moment. To make
this a moral cause.

There are those who would say that the problem is too big and we can’t
solve it. There are many people who go from denial to despair without
pausing on the intermediate step of actually solving the problem. To those
who say it’s too big for us, I say that we have accepted and successfully
met such challenges in the past. We declared our liberty, and then won it.
We designed a country that respected and safeguarded the freedom of
individuals. We freed the slaves. We gave women the right to vote. We took
on Jim Crow and segregation. We cured great diseases, we have landed on the
moon, we have won two wars in the Pacific and the Atlantic simultaneously.
We brought down communism, we brought down apartheid, we have even solved a
global environmental crisis before – the hole in the stratospheric ozone
layer – because we had leadership and because we had vision and because
people who exercise moral authority in their local communities empowered
our nation’s government “of the people by the people and for the people” to
take ethical actions even thought they were difficult. This is another such
time. This is your moment. This is the time for those who see and
understand and care and are willing to work to say this time the warnings
will not be ignored. This time we will prepare. This time we will rise to
the occasion. And we will prevail. Thank you. Good luck to you, God bless
you.